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Massage Today
January, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 01

Massage Chairs: Fad, Fixture or Therapeutic Tool?

By Raymond Blaylock

The debate goes on. Some people still consider massage chairs, and the work performed on them, a form of "fluff and buff" massage, not true therapeutic massage. Some would offer that seated massage is a good marketing tool to get people into the office or clinic to get some "real" massage.

My original introduction to the use of a massage chair was during a time when my practice was located within a physical therapy rehab center in Monterey, Calif. So my frame of reference to the use of a massage chair was for people who were so physically uncomfortable that it was not possible for them to lie down on a table. In some instances my initial work was done with them on a stool. Certain types of dysfunction such as whiplash, rotator cuff injury rehab and low back discomfort seemed to present instances where the positioning on a massage chair made the massage work easier to perform and less of an energy drain on my body.

The original massage chairs in this country, and all chairs since (save for a couple of exceptions), have been designed on the concept of the back-saver chair that became popular in the early 1980s. You remember the design; a chair with no back and a slanted seat with slanted kneepads for the legs. The design was the brainchild of a Danish orthopedist, with the thought being in this position you could not "slouch" and your vertebrae were "stacked" in a fairly straight column. The chair was done for people who were spending many hours sitting at a desk doing repetitive motions with their hands above their waists, and developing the compensatory low back discomfort and cervical immobility that is associated with that type of position.

Massage Chair - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Massage Chairs: Fad, Fixture or Therapeutic Tool? The Danish orthopedist theorized that the position in the back-saver chair relieved about 70 percent of the pressure at L-5, S-1. Although the back-saver chairs never became a large market, home versions were developed, and high-tech Sharper Image versions exist today, but research never could verify the stated hypothesis.

My experience has been that it is an effective position for individuals with low back pain. At just about every show that I have ever done over the last 17 years, I have had at least one individual who was complaining of low back discomfort tell me that the discomfort had significantly subsided after they had sat down on the chair, many times before I had even had them lean forward into the chest pad and headrest.

In the rehab setting, the chair was very significant in that I could get the chair to fit each individual according to his or her body size and type. I could put them into a supported position with the weight and pressure off L-5,S-1. A two-fold advantage exists due to the seat and leg position design of the chair and the effect on the lumbar area; and the weight and pressure release on the cervical area, due to the position and support of the head in the adjustable headrest. When the client is properly positioned, the spine is in this supported position allowing the muscles of the client's back and neck to relax, releasing biomechanical tension. The spine is ideally reasonably straight after you adjust the client in the chair with a line drawn along the lateral body from the center of the ear through the greater trochanter. The pressure on the cervical area and the lumbar region is reduced dramatically. Actually, in this position you can usually detect hypertonic tissue like a "speed bump." Plus, I think that if you just left them in the chair for 10-15 minutes in this position they would experience a certain level of release without even putting your hands on their bodies. When we do begin to use our hands, the position in the chair has helped them to become relaxed and has already relieved some of the existing tension in the cervical area and the lumbar region. In effect, the chair has already done some of the work for us.

I have found that most upper body work can be performed in a massage chair more efficiently, with about a quarter to a half the energy expenditure on my part needed for table work. For some of the work on the hand, arm and shoulders, I can actually sit down while being incredibly effective.

It has been said, "You can't build a house with just a hammer." I am assuming this would include "remodeling," too. For myself, after 36 years of doing bodywork, I know I need tools to assist me in my continued proficiency and longevity in this profession.

Perhaps it is time for you to take another look at the massage chair in a different light. When I say we can do business everywhere, what about other countries and customs related to touch? Take a look at this link to a Web site called the Business of Touch:

Raymond Blaylock, practitioner and educator, is the director of education at the Touch Resource Institute. He may be contacted by email or through his Web site:


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